Migration comes out of lockdown

The causes driving people to seek a future in Europe have been exacerbated by the pandemic

4 min
Distribution of emergency food rations on board the Ocean Vikinga , Thursday.

BarcelonaOcean Viking, the rescue ship of the French NGO SOS Mediterranée, began to disembark 572 people, including 183 minors, survivors of the daily drama in the Mediterranean, now far from the media spotlight, at midday in Sicily. They were rescued in six boats in the waters separating Libya from Malta, most of them in the rescue zone under the responsibility of the European island, and after a week at sea they will be able to disembark in Italy. The largest was a fishing boat carrying 369 people. Last Saturday another dinghy boat sank off Tunisia, leaving at least 43 dead and 83 survivors. On Spain's southern border, more than 2,000 people have died this semester, as announced this week by the NGO Caminando Fronteras. They are only the first steps of a summer that will again fill the waters of the Mediterranean, the most unequal border on the planet, with deaths.

"We have three women on board who have explained to us how they were detained and raped for months in detention centres in Libya. They told us that they and their children were treated like commodities", Claire Juchat, communications officer on board Ocean Viking, told ARA. For years, witnesses from survivors of these centres have been accumulating, where migrants are held and mistreated by armed men until their families pay a ransom or manage to flee. "Our medical team on board have treated gunshot wounds and injuries from beatings and torture", she adds.

The rescued castaways come from places as far away as Bangladesh, and others from places closer to home, such as Egypt, Eritrea or Sudan, and have passed through Libya, today a failed state where a constellation of armed groups dominate the territory. But Libya is not only a transit country: among the men and women who travel in the boats there are also Libyans, like a family with two children with serious disabilities that Ocean Viking rescued with their wheelchairs.

Captures, not rescues

In the 72 hours that the humanitarian rescue ship was working in the area, five empty boats were found that had been captured by the self-styled Libyan coastguard, the Italian and EU-funded trained body that catches migrants on the high seas and returns them to the Libyan hellhole. At least 15,000 migrants have been forcibly returned by these coastguards, who do not hesitate to shoot them, as documented a few days ago with a video recorded from their aircraft by the German NGO Sea Watch.

As Xavier Aragall, a migration expert at IEMed explains: "Europe, little by little and silently, has got rid of the problem with these interceptions by the Libyan and Tunisian coastguards: we don't know what happens to all these people when they are sent back, despite all the UN reports on the terrible conditions in Libyan detention centres, which have worsened with the pandemic. The worst thing is that in Europe this no longer raises any disagreement: the consensus is that the fewer arrivals, the better".

This policy of outsourcing border control is also applied by Spain to stop the departures to the Canary Islands, with agreements with the governments of Senegal, Mauritania and Ivory Coast, and has placed in the hands of the Moroccan regime the key to the surveillance of the borders of Melilla and Ceuta, as evidenced by the last crisis in May.

The return of the wooden barges

However, in a place without a functioning state, like Libya, the results are more chaotic. Now in the central Mediterranean one can again see large wooden barges, like the one that was rescued by Ocean Viking with 369 people on board, which had not been seen in the area for a long time. "This indicates that the beaches of Libya are not being watched as closely, because these boats are very visible and it takes hours to embark everyone, unlike the small rubber rafts that can leave at night from any point: traffickers are moving with less surveillance", says Flavio Di Giacomo, of the International Organisation for Migration, from Rome.

There is also another factor that explains the reappearance of these large barges: with fewer rescue workers since Italy withdrew the Mare Nostrum rescue operation, traffickers are offering more solid boats to those who can pay for them, the only ones that have a chance of reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa or the European rescue zones.

And what should we expect this summer? Everything points to the fact that, after the restrictions on movement imposed by the pandemic, which have also affected undocumented migrants in transit, migrations have also begun to emerge after lockdown.

Haizam Amirah, a researcher at Elcano Royal Institute, recalls that the root causes that push people to migrate not only continue - but have worsened. "We have failed states, such as Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt, which is the most populous country in the basin, has a more authoritarian regime today than Hosni Mubarak's regime was. In Algeria there is a political crisis that has not been resolved since 2019 and a growing social unrest that the regime can no longer appease with subsidies due to falling oil revenues. Morocco and Tunisia depend on the tourism sector, which generates many jobs. And south of the Mediterranean there is neither a social cushion nor stimulus and recovery plans like those in Europe. What we do have is a large and very young population who are unable to meet their needs because they can't find work".